Getting up-close with the Komodo dragons had long been on the wish list of Singapore-based Anna Schulteisz. Last year, she finally took the plunge with a group of friends on a stunning cruise around the Indonesian islands of Flores, Komodo and Rinca.
Indonesia's famous 'pink beach' in the Flores Sea.
It’s hot work as we hike over the tiny island of Rinca. But as we pick our way along the paths, the vast indigo blue of the Flores Sea and Indian Ocean stretching before us, we are regaled with dragon tales by our guide.
Sightings are not guaranteed, and we’re told there is plenty of other wildlife to look out for.
But then, as we turn a corner, there they are - a cluster of giant lounging lizards, soaking up the sunshine. There’s a frenzy of photo-taking as we all try to capture the scene before us. It’s an ‘Insta-moment’ as the dragons, who we’ve previously only ever seen on David Attenborough-narrated documentaries and the main reason for booking this trip, lie stretched out before us.
Rinca is one of the three largest islands in Komodo National Park, the other two being Flores and Komodo. It’s famous for the park’s eponymous dragons, giant lizards that measure up to three metres and can weigh up to 70 kgs. Because of their size, they dominate the local ecosystem, hunting and ambushing local prey. Two glands in their lower jaw secrete several toxic poisons. They are a force of nature to be reckoned with.
We’d been informed that Rinca is a better choice than its more famous neighbour, Komodo, for viewing the beasts. Komodo Island has been inundated with tourists recently, prompting a sharp rise in entrance fees to the national park. Rinca is a quieter option.
Komodo National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site located off the coast of Flores and Sumbawa Islands in the centre of the Indonesian archipelago.
I’d wanted to visit for a long time but when in 2018 Indonesia’s president, Djoko Widodo, announced that it was now one of the top ten up-and-coming tourist destinations to visit in Indonesia, that I decided it was time to cross it off my to-do list.
Hearing that family friends had also planned the same trip, we decided to team up with them and rent a boat to island-hop our way around Komodo National Park.
Stunning Padar Island in Komodo National Park, Indonesia.
As there are no direct flights from Singapore, we decide to stop over in Bali for a day instead of Jakarta and begin our journey by chilling out on the Island of the Gods and generally getting into the island groove.
The following morning, we catch a tiny plane with Garuda Indonesia to Labuan Bajo where all Komodo Island cruises embark.
On arrival we check in with our tour operator (LePirate) and are offered breakfast, refreshments and an introduction of our trip by our lovely ship captain and tour guide, Harry.
After a short jeep ride to the pier, we realise that the catamaran we booked is large enough for everyone to settle in comfortably and allow plenty of personal space (it can accommodate up to ten people).
It’s basic, but spacious and clean, and is a ‘no emissions’ vessel that runs on wind-power and solar energy. Bathroom facilities are basic and to minimise freshwater usage, the shower uses seawater. The bedrooms on the top deck are divided with tarpaulin, which gives everything a bit of a ‘camping vibe’, and in the evening you can open up all the rooms and fall asleep gazing at the stars. The crew is also happy to accommodate route changes and deviations - you don’t have to follow a strict agenda.
Once we’ve set sail, we enjoy reclining on the loungers on nets as the water rushes by beneath us.
Our first stop is Rinca to see the famous dragons. These creatures can grow up to ten feet in length and are in fact the heaviest lizards on earth. They've thrived in Indonesia for millions of years and are found in tropical forests across the islands. They feast on almost anything, including deer, pigs, other dragons and even large water buffalo, so we were pretty happy to keep our distance. Once biting down on its prey with venomous teeth, Komodo dragons will calmly follow their prey for miles waiting for the venom to take effect.
Once we’ve had our fill of taking photos and snapping up dragon-themed souvenirs, we're back on board the boat to cheerfully regale each other with our dragon tails.
The Komodo dragon, or Komodo monitor, is found in the islands of Komodo, Rinca, Flores and Gili Motang (picture courtesy Unsplash).
The remainder of the day is spent listening to music, reading books and playing board games as we cruise to Padar Island, a small dot of land nestled between Komodo and Rinca.
The next day we are rudely awakened by each other’s alarm clocks at 5am in order to catch the sunrise. The morning hike up the steep hill takes around 30 minutes, a shock to the system at that time of day. But at the top we are rewarded with breath-taking vistas over what I can only describe as Jurassic Park, a land lost in time.
Already at 7am the sun is scorching hot, so we decide to cool off at a nearby deserted beach.
Of course no trip to Komodo Island is complete without a stopover at Pink Beach, the Insta-worthy shore where the eroded red coral turns the sand rosy.
As locations go, it’s stunning, but Harry tells us that there is a pink sandbank which is less crowded and worth the visit, so we hop back on the boat and within an hour we arrive at a true paradise on Earth.
I grab my goggles and plunge into the crystal clear, turquoise waters, only to discover the most beautiful, lively coral reef I’ve ever seen. I encounter myriad fish, sea urchins, starfish and even reef sharks as they parade before me in the cool water. In an age of climate change and habitat depletion, it’s incredible to find an underwater world like this still exists.
All too soon it’s time to leave and we set sail to Manta Point. Here, we snorkel with massive manta rays and turtles, another incredible experience. We finish the day at Kalong Island, where we arrive just in time to see thousands of bats start their daily commute to Flores (some thirty kilometers away) where they feed during the night before returning at dawn.
We eat breakfast the next morning watching mantas doing air flips. It’s another magical destination which again is hard to leave.
After stopping for a final snorkel, we arrive back in Labuan Bajo and settle into our room for our last night. The hotel is modern and cool and overlooks the harbour, so we enjoy a round of cocktails watching the sun dip into the ocean before hitting the local night market for dinner.
It was wonderful to have experienced this trip with good friends. We all board our flights concluding it was perhaps the best group trip we’ve taken and vow that we will certainly do it again, maybe next time ticking off another bucket list contender, Raja Ampat.
We booked with tour operator Le Pirate and flew from Singapore to Labuan Bajo via Bali, although you can also transfer in Jakarta.
The trip ran for four days and three nights and prices start around US$500 per cabin for three nights. Included in the price are all meals - mostly Indonesian dishes - and free-flow coffee, tea and water. Alcoholic drinks are offered in packages and you can also bring your own. Additional costs included park entrance fees and a cash tip for the crew.
Dry season starts in April and lasts until December, while the rainy season stretches from January until March.
This feature was first published in the April/May 2019 issue of Asia Family Traveller. Never miss an issue by signing up for digital subscription here.